ISLAMOPHOBIA is defined as; “the fear, hatred of, or prejudice against, Islam or Muslims”. The word, ‘Islamophobia’ has been relatively recent added to the vocabulary of English language. Linguists and social scientists have not yet reached a consensus regarding the universally agreed upon literal or connotative meanings of Islamophobia as a word, or a concept. Though the use of Islamophobia as a contrived expression dates back to the early 20th century, it surfaced as a neologism in the 1970s. However, it nearly completely disappeared during the 1980s and 1990s, most probably due to the role played by the Muslim countries, especially Pakistan and the people of Afghanistan, to dismantle the (erstwhile) Soviet Union, the archenemy of Christian and Jewish world. The term regained currency with the publication of a report by the Runnymede Trust’s Commission on the British Muslims and Islamophobia (CBMI) titled, “Islamophobia: A Challenge for Us All” (1997). The introduction of the term was justified by the report’s assessment; “anti-Muslim prejudice has grown so considerably and so rapidly in recent years that a new item in the vocabulary is needed”.
It is difficult to pinpoint the exact causes and characteristics of Islamophobia. The change in the policy and approach of the US to the Afghan freedom fighters, who were once glorified as Mujahideen (Holy Warriors) during the Afghan War served to transform them from the pro-US and West militias into terrorist organisations such as Al-Qaeda, etc. Though 9/11 and terror attacks in Europe, reportedly carried out by Al-Qaeda and its affiliates strengthened anti-Islam and anti-Muslim sentiments among the American and European public, Islamophobia became a cause of concern for the governments of these states after the rise of Taliban and Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Afghanistan and the Middle East respectively, which were perceived as radical Islamic Movements having the potential of spreading in other Muslim states. In addition to terror attacks and the rise of radical Muslim movements, a number of other factors have triggered the spread of Islamophobia in the US and Europe.
The brutalities committed by Taliban and ISIS against their opponents in the name of Islam, and the outmoded socio-political culture-cum-systems in vogue in some Muslim countries, portrayed the Muslims as the followers of a religion that is exclusivistic, regressive and unresponsive to change. The increased presence of Muslims in the United States and Europe is another cause of increased prejudice against the Muslims. Sabine Schiffer, and the researcher Constantin Wagner, have outlined similarities and differences between Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. They point out the existence of equivalent notions such as Judaisation/Islamisation”, and metaphors such as “a state within a state” are used in relation to both Jews and Muslims. The differences between Islamophobia and anti-Semitism consist of the nature of the perceived threats to the “Christian West”. Muslims are perceived as “inferior” and a visible “external threat”, while Jews are perceived as “omnipotent” and an invisible “internal threat”.
The media houses, too are responsible for spreading Islamophobia. A case study, examining a sample of articles published in the British press from 1994 to 2004, concluded that Muslim viewpoints were underrepresented and that issues involving Muslims usually depicted them in a negative light. Such portrayals include the depiction of Islam and Muslims as a threat to Western security and values. Negative feeling about Islam were also strengthened by the use of Islamophobia as a campaign tactic during the 2008 American presidential election by the Republican politicians, including Donald Trump, who insisted that Barack Obama was secretly a Muslim. In the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump once again exploited anti-Muslim sentiments as a campaign tactic by suggesting a ban on the entry of Muslims into the US.
The emergency meeting of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Council of Foreign Ministers held on March 22, 2019 in Istanbul suggested a strategy to tackle rising Islamophobia. The meeting was called to discuss the causes, impacts and way forward in the aftermath of the New Zealand terror attacks targeting two mosques in Christchurch on March 15, 2019. The communiqué issued by the meeting ignored the most important issue i.e. addressing the rising misconceptions and apprehensions of the Islamophobes about Islam as a threat to the Western culture. To quell the fears of the US and the West about Muslims as, “barbaric, primitive, sexist, violent, aggressive and supportive of terrorism”, the Muslim countries are required to initiate curative measures, preferably in collaboration with the affected countries, to counterbalance the sectarian organisations belonging to different Muslim schools of thought, which are damaging the image of Islam by promoting regressive religious ideologies.
Religious prejudice is not confined to a particular religion or region. The unthoughtful policies of political parties in the democratic countries have also played a role to transform religious intolerance into a global menace to achieve their own political and strategic goals. There have been a marked increase in religion-based violence in India during the last couple of decades. The analysts believe that incidents of religious violence are politically motivated and a part of the electoral strategy of political parties which are associated with radical Hindu nationalism like the Bharatiya Janata Party. The religious-based hatred and extremism, whether it be Islamophobia, Jihadi Culture, Hindutva or Zionist racism, are a global challenge that warrants a well-planned and well-coordinated global response to eliminate this threat to the world peace. Measures, such as interfaith dialogue, are good initiatives. But, as the oft-repeated cliché, “actions speak louder than words” aptly outlines that practical steps must be taken. Adoption of an unbiased policy by the UN against the societies that indulge in discrimination and violence against religious minorities to achieve their political or sectarian agenda, may help curb the religious violence.
— The writer, a retired Brig, is professional educationist based in Islamabad.